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US-UK airstrikes risk strengthening Houthi rebels’ position in Yemen and the region

Raid follows warnings from Washington to cease attacks in the Red Sea – but could serve to strengthen rebels and reignite civil war.

Houthi supports rally in Yemen following US-UK airstrikes. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The U.S.- and U.K.-led strikes on the rebel Houthi group in Yemen represent a dramatic new turn in the Middle East conflict – one that could have implications throughout the region.

The attacks of Jan. 11, 2024 hit around 60 targets at 16 sites, according U.S. Air Force’s Mideast command, including in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, the main port of Hodeida and Saada, the birth place of the Houthis in the country’s northwest.

The military action follows weeks of warning by the U.S. to the Houthis, ordering them to stop attacking commercial ships in the strategic strait of Bab el-Mandeb in the Red Sea. The Houthis – an armed militia backed by Iran that controls most of northern Yemen following a bitter near-decadelong civil war – have also launched missile and drones into Israel.

As an expert on Yemeni politics, I believe the U.S. attacks on the Houthis will have wide implications – not only for the Houthis and Yemen’s civil war, but also for the broader region where America maintains key allies. In short, the Houthis stand to gain politically from these U.S.-U.K. attacks as they support a narrative that the group has been cultivating: that they are freedom fighters fighting Western imperialism in the Muslim world.

For Houthis, a new purpose

The Israel-Gaza conflict has reinvigorated the Houthis – giving them a raison d’etre at a time when their status at home was diminishing.

By the time of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants in Israel, the Houthis’ long conflict with Saudi Arabia – which backs the Yemeni government ousted by the Houthis at the start of Yemen’s civil war in 2014 – had quieted after an April 2022 ceasefire drastically reduced fighting.

Houthi missile strikes on Saudi cities ceased and there were hopes that truce could bring about a permanent end to Yemen’s brutal conflict.

With fewer external threats, domestic troubles that surfaced in Houthi-controlled areas — poverty, unpaid government salaries, crumbling infrastructure – led to growing disquiet over Houthi governance. Public support for the Houthis slowly eroded without an outside aggressor to blame; Houthi leaders could no longer justify the hardships in Yemen as a required sacrifice to resist foreign powers, namely Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

But Israel’s attacks in Gaza have provided renewed purpose for Houthis. Aligning with the Palestinian cause has allowed Houthis to reassert their relevance and reenergized their fighters and leadership.

By firing missiles toward Israel, the Houthis have portrayed themselves as the lone Arab force standing up to Israel, unlike regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The militia is presenting to Yemenis and others in the region a different face than Arab governments that have, to date, been unwilling to take strong action against Israel.

In particular, Houthis are contrasting their worldview with that of Saudi Arabia, which prior to the October Hamas attack had been looking to normalize ties with Israel.

Houthi’s PR machine

The U.S. and U.K. strikes were, the governments of both countries say, in retaliation for persistent attacks by Houthis on international maritime vessels in the Red Sea and followed attempts at a diplomatic solution.

The aim is to “disrupt and degrade the Houthis’ capabilities,” according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

A UK military aircraft take off en route to Yemen on Jan. 11, 2024.
UK Ministry of Defence via Getty Images

But regardless of the intent or the damage caused to the Houthis militarily, the Western strikes may play into the group’s narrative, reinforcing the claim that they are fighting oppressive foreign enemies attacking Yemen. And this will only bolster the Houthis’ image among supporters.

Already, the Houthis have managed to rally domestic public support in the part of Yemen they control behind their actions since October 2023.

Dramatic seaborne raids, the taking hostage of ships’ crews have generated viral footage that taps into Northern Yemeni nationalism. Turning a captured vessel into a public attraction attracted more attention domestically.

Following the U.S.-U.K. strikes on Houthi targets, Houthi spokesperson Yahya Saree has said the group would expand their attacks in the Red Sea, saying any coalition attack on Yemen will prompt strikes on all shipping through the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects to the Arabian Sea at the southern end of the Red Sea.

Weaponizing Palestinian sympathies

Meanwhile, the Houthis have successfully managed to align the Palestinian cause with that their own. Appeals through mosques in Yemen and cellphone text campaigns have raised donations for the Houthis by invoking Gaza’s plight.

The U.S.-U.K strikes may backfire for another reason, too: They evoke past memories of Western military interventions in the Muslim and Arab world.

The Houthis will no doubt exploit this.

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin initially announced the formation of a 10-country coalition to counter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea on Dec. 18, 2023, there were concerns over the lack of regional representation. Among countries in the Middle East and Muslim world, only Bahrain – home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet – joined.

The absence of key regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti – where the U.S. has its only military base in Africa – raised further doubts among observers about the coalition’s ability to effectively counter the Houthis.

Muslim-majority countries were no doubt hesitant to support the coalition due to the sensitivity of the Palestinian cause, which by then the Houthis had successfully aligned themselves with.

But the lack of regional support leaves the U.S. and its coalition allies in a challenging position. Rather than being seen as protectors of maritime security, the U.S. – rather than the Houthis – are vulnerable to being framed in the region as the aggressor and escalating party.

This perception could damage U.S. credibility in the area and potentially serve as a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and similar groups.

The U.S.’s military and diplomatic support for Israel throughout the current conflict also plays into skepticism in the region over the true objectives of the anti-Houthi missile strikes.

Reigniting civil war?

The Houthis’ renewed vigor – and Western strikes on the group – also have implications for Yemen’s civil war itself.

Since the truce between the two main protagonists in the conflict – Saudi Arabia and the Houthis – fighting between the Houthis and other groups in Yemen, like the Southern Transitional Council, the Yemen Transitional Government and the National Resistance, has reached a deadlock.

Each group controls different parts of Yemen and all seem to have accepted this deadlock.

But the U.S-U.K. strikes put Houthi opponents in a difficult position. They will be hesitant to openly support Western intervention in Yemen or blame the Houthis for supporting Palestinans. There remains widespread sympathy for Gazans in Yemen – something that could give Houthis an opportunity to gain support in areas not under their control.

The Yemeni Transitional Government issued a statement following the U.S.-U.K. strikes which shows the predicament facing Houthi rivals. While blaming the Houthis’ “terrorist attacks” for “dragging the country into a military confrontation”, they also clearly reaffirmed support for Palestinians against “brutal Israeli aggression”.

While Houthi rivals will likely continue this balancing act, the Houthis face no such constraints – they can freely exploit the attacks to rally more support and gain a strategic advantage over their local rivals.

An emboldened Houthi group might also be less likely to accept the current status quo in Yemen, and seize the moment to push for more control – potentially reigniting a civil war that had looked to be on the wane.

The Houthis thrive on foreign aggression to consolidate their power. Without this external conflict as a justification, the shortcomings of the Houthis’ political management become apparent, undermining their governance. During the civil war, Houthis were able to portray themselves as the defender of Yemen against Saudi influence. Now they can add U.S. and U.K. interference to the mix.

Mahad Darar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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